The state of jazz vocals today

(February 2008)

By Ted Gioia

How do we assess the current state of jazz singing? Of course,
you can’t judge a CD by its cover, but . . . well, let’s just say that
jazz vocalists have never looked better. Perusing the CD covers of
releases by Diana Krall, Jane Monheit, Roberta Gambarini,
Madeleine Peyroux and others, I am overwhelmed by the sheer
amount of pulchritude on display. Has Vogue magazine, perhaps,
entered the jazz CD business?

And the guys are providing as much eye candy as the ladies.
Following in the footsteps of Harry Connick, newer faces such as
Peter Cincotti, Matt Dusk and Michael Bublé seem to have
stepped out of a Hollywood movie and into a recording studio.
What a shame to keep such good looks hidden behind a grand
piano. They should be on billboards, or selling their own brand of
cologne, or (as they no doubt have at the top of their five year
plans) stepping back inside that Hollywood film.

But these special effects do not come easily. The liner notes to
Diana Krall’s 2006 release From This Moment On include credits
to two hairdressers, two makeup artists and one wardrobe
assistant – all of them given higher ranking than Steinway (for the
piano) and Krall’s husband, Elvis Costello. Jane Monheit’s record
label, not to be outdone, points out in her official bio, the
“indisputable fact” that Monheit is a “stunning, raven-haired
beauty” – and then goes on to mention, almost as an after-
thought, her singing.

No wonder the record companies hate downloading. How do you
pitch a “stunning, raven-haired beauty” in a MP3 file? How do you
get a return on your hairdo investment on iTunes? Ah, how times
have changed . . . how did Billie Holiday get by with just that
gardenia? Where was Ella’s entourage? Bessie’s beautician?
Sarah’s stylist?

And how do we deal with the plight of the aging female jazz singer
in this environment? The jazz world has usually celebrated its
elder statesmen (and statesladies). But things have changed.
Diane Schuur was building a large Grammy collection back in the
1980s, but her 2006 Live in London finds her working for the GR2
Classics label. A check of the GR2 Classic web site – which is so
well hidden even my well-honed Googling skills were almost
stymied in my efforts to find it– indicated that Schuur is the only
artist listed in their “classics” roster. The Amazon ranking for Live
in London, the last time I checked, showed it sitting at number
133,997 on their charts – ouch! Schuur's new CD comes out in a
few days, and let’s hope it finds a larger audience. Or consider the
case of Sheila Jordan, one of the most talented jazz singers of
recent decades, who recently ranked among the top five female
jazz singers in the Down Beat critics’ poll. Yet her newest release
sits at number 196,435 on the Amazon ranking. In comparison,
Krall, Jones and several other younger jazz singers are firmly
entrenched in the top 100.

Let us next consider Cassandra Wilson, who is now in her early
50s and continues to produce work of outstanding merit. Unlike
many celebrated voices half her age, Wilson retains an
experimental zeal and innovative spirit that keeps her music vital
and pleasingly unpredictable. Wilson’s collaborations with
Canadian guitarist Colin Linden on her 2006 Thunderbird release
deserve to be much more widely heard. Wilson and Linden are an
effective songwriting team – check out their composition “Poet” --
but they can also revamp traditional material, such as “Red River
Valley” and “Easy Rider” into strange, new forms. Wilson has
always been a great blues singer, and her “Easy Rider” is majestic
and oceanic, a mini-miracle in twelve-bar form. It would be a
shame if listeners missed out on this music because it didn’t come
packaged like a product from L’Oreal.

Don’t get me wrong, I love displays of glamour on my CD rack, but
I also admire the latest recordings of all-too-easily forgotten fifty-
somethings like Dianne Reeves and Diane Schuur, sexagenarian
Andy Bey, septuagenarians Abbey Lincoln, Mark Murphy, or that
indefatigable octogenarian Tony Bennett. But even more to the
point, I have suspicions. I am dismayed to think that record
companies might be choosing artists on the basis of their looks. (In
the words of Captain Renault, as the croupier hands him his
winnings: “I'm shocked — shocked to find that gambling is going
on in here.”) This is worse than the Titanic, my friends. Not only
are the aged and infirm left behind, but also less glamorous
vocalists of the current generation, who are denied record
contracts because they fail to live up to the A&R department’s pre-
conceptions of what a star looks like.

A few months ago, this was my hunch, a numb feeling in my gut as
I walked down the jazz aisles at the local megachain. But now that I
have sifted through a couple hundred recent CDs of jazz singers –
even managing to make a dent in the growing mountain of
obscure indie projects and self-produced releases that overwhelm
even the best intentioned critic – my worst fears have been
confirmed. Here’s my verdict in a nutshell: the label execs may
have an eye for talent, but they need to give their ears a workout
too. How else do brilliant artists – such as Julia Dollison, Melissa
Stylianou, Sara Jones and Susana Raya, to mention just four
names – get lost in the shuffle, while lesser talents with a higher Q-
score strut the big stage? And I am left to ponder what wonders we
might be hearing, if the labels (like many symphony’s these days)
conducted auditions with the performer hidden behind a screen,
allowing the music, and only the music, to take center stage.

I never worried much about the appearance of jazz in the past, but
today this is a matter crying out for a great critic to address. Some
deep thinker needs to write a penetrating history of jazz as a
symbol, as an image in our collective psyche. Ever since
Fitzgerald (F. Scott, not Ella) appropriated the term ‘the Jazz Age’
to denote a whole way of life, this music has been weighed down
with multiple layers of meaning. When swing was the thing, jazz
took on new symbolic resonance. When hip was hep, when cool
was the school, when beats were worldbeaters, when retro was the
rage --- jazz was always there, sanctioning lifestyles and casting a
beneficent light on the proceedings.

And today? Judging by the jazz singers of our new millennium, the
music is now the conduit for our fantasy life. Jazz has become the
symbol of a glamorous sensuality. If jazz was once seedy,
disreputable music of an underclass, it is now the stylish, sexy
soundtrack for the beautiful people. Or for the less-than-beautiful
who want to plunge into an imaginary life that is cooler and more
romantic, even if it is a little old-fashioned. Just look at the CD
covers, with those fashions and hairstyles straight out of
Hollywood movie from the Golden Age. The harsh and gritty, once
part and parcel of jazz singing (think of Louis Armstrong’s
sandpapery voice or Billie Holiday’s dark pathos) are now passé.
In our age of “hooking up” and enjoying “friends with benefits,” the
jazz singers are prettified and dolled up as representatives of the
lost era of chivalrous love, reminding us of a more romantic
flirtatiousness, of an idealized view of 1940s and 1950s
relationships, slightly modernized for 21st century tastes. The look
and feel of the CDs, the packaging of the artists, the choice of
songs, all tend toward this same “retro” end point.

Someone should explain this to the aspiring singers of the next
generation – perhaps distribute flyers at the American Idol tryouts.
They are worrying about hitting the high notes, singing in tune,
expanding their range, building up their lung power – when they
should be talking to cosmetic surgeons, auditioning
photographers, working on their “come hither” glances, and
finding the right wardrobe. Singing is now only a small component
of the vocalist’s arsenal – maybe the least important from the
perspective of the music industry -- and just having Aretha’s voice
is not enough any more, if you also have Aretha’s figure.

Don’t get me wrong: the jazz vocal stars of the new millennium are,
for the most part, talented singers – if you can turn away from their
double dose of good looks long enough to pay attention to the
music. Norah Jones and Diana Krall, to mention only two of the
most celebrated jazz divas of our day, are a delight to hear. They
never over-sing – and this may be the one area in which the
younger singers, especially the women, are better than the older
generation. They take the emotional temperature of a song, and
don’t deviate it from it. They don’t bastardize the meaning of a lyric
with unnecessary theatrics or grand gestures. They don’t confuse
a misty-eyed torch song by interjecting inappropriate dittley-
dattley-doo scat singing interludes. They never show off, never
disrupt the suchness of a musicall interlude. Instead, the listeners
are treated to nuanced performances where the music and lyrics
are perfectly matched.

Norah Jones is our obvious starting point for our survey of jazz
singers. But not just for her CD sales, which are extraordinary, or
her good looks, but (especially) for her talent. If you don’t pay
attention, you may miss how well Jones sings, since so much of
the activity happens at the microtonal level, with those subtle shifts
within the note, within the phrase, in the linkages between the
tones. Jazz singing is still an analog art form. Let the opera stars
pride themselves on hitting the note spot on in the middle. Jazz
vocalists, in contrast, are expected to play a sly game with the
pitches, slipping and sliding around the tonal center. And they do
the same with the beat, holding back or rushing ahead with the
phrase, disrupting the rhythmic flow based on their inspiration of
the moment.

Listen carefully to Jones’ breakthrough hit “Don’t Know Why” and
savor how these delicate touches contribute to the emotional force
of the song. Jones takes a simple, almost nursery-rhyme melody
and infuses it with rich dimensions of feeling, the lazy, falling vocal
traipsing wistfully after the descending bass-line. A little country
twang, the calling card of Jones’ Texas up-bringing, mixes
effortlessly with her blues notes and jazz vocabulary – and do we
even hear a touch of raga phrasing inherited from father Ravi
Shankar? But the mixture is not too spicy, not too sweet, capturing
a beautiful rightness. Critics with wooden ears have dismissed this
as saccharine pop music, but they under-estimate the talent of this
vocalist, who may eventually rank as the finest interpreter of songs
of her generation.

Of course, she is already the best-selling. True, you cannot judge
a jazz performance by shopping carts and ringing
cash registers, but even a jaded jazz writer like me takes notice at
the numbers racked up by Ms. Jones. Her debut CD, Come Away
With Me, sold twenty million copies worldwide. (By comparison,
many well known jazz performers have spent entire careers without
having a single release sell more than 25,000 copies.) Her follow-
up recording, Feels Like Home, moved a million copies in a single
week! Her third CD, Not Too Late, may have fallen short of these
dazzling totals, but it is hard to carp at a release that jumped to
number one on the all the charts immediately upon release. To put
these figures in perspective, there have been weeks in which the
sales of this single chanteuse have accounted for more industry
revenue than all of the other jazz releases on the market put

Such success inevitably invites imitation, and I can safely predict
that we will continue to find the CD racks cluttered with Norah-
wannabes for at least the next twenty years (just as we are still
feeling the second order effects of Harry Connick, twenty years
after his appearance on the scene). Katie Melua has emerged as
the leading European challenger in this competition, and might
even pass for Norah in a blindfold test. Melua was still in her teens
when a BBC radio producer mounted a campaign to push her
single "The Closest Thing To Crazy" to the top of the charts. It
never got higher than the tenth slot. But her second CD, Piece by
Piece, established her as the top-selling vocalist in Europe. It sold
three million copies – over one million in the UK alone. Yet Melua
does not have Jones’ depth of feeling in her singing; some critics
have even carped that her vocals are emotionless and dull, which
is perhaps too harsh. I trace the difference back, again, to
phrasing: Norah hints and teases, while Katie just banters.
(Forgive me, if it sounds like I am describing the action at the
single’s bar, but jazz vocals are also a type of preening and
courtship, and the psychological intensity of song, so to speak,
often derives from these minor details.)

Generally the clones and imitators drag down the jazz world, but
Norah Jones may change this. The success of her recordings has
already had one positive effect – it has encouraged other young
jazz singers to develop original material, and not just rely on the
same tired Gershwin and Porter songs that have been around
since my grandfather’s day. Back in 2002, when I played the seer
and contributed some predictions to a little volume called The
Future of Jazz, I offered advice to the new generation of jazz
vocalists, who seemed trapped in a rut of recreating the 1930s
and 1940s tunes ad nauseum. “Tap into new material,” I
suggested. “It is not enough to be a singer, you must also be a
poet. If you are not able to write your own songs, find some one
who has the creative vision to do this for you.” Today the world of
jazz vocals has embraced that vision with a vengeance, and
almost every up-and-coming singer is tackling fresh and
contemporary material. I wish I could take credit for all this. But the
release of Norah Jones’ first CD, almost at the same time that I
wrote those words, was the overpowering force that changed all
the rules. Jazz singing is merging with pop singing, and although
some of the purists are offended (and, note, it is usually a healthy
sign when these dour folks are offended), I welcome this
refreshing development.

When Jones first hit the scene, more than a few arbiters of taste
proclaimed that her music wasn’t really jazz, and now we will
inevitably hear the same about great young talent such as Amos
Lee, Somi, Lizz Wright, Sasha Dobson, Anna Maria Jopek and
Janita, among others. Their music defies categorization, but in an
uplifting, devil-may-care way. The pop-rock world abandoned the
singer-songwriter years ago – much to its detriment – so why
shouldn’t the jazz folks jump into the breach? This whole
development is very promising and maybe the most exciting turn-
of-events in jazz during the last decade. In the “Age of Norah,” jazz
singing may finally be moving beyond the confines of pre-WWII
tunes and embracing new material, new attitudes with a

But Jones is not the only megastar in our firmament. Ali needed
Fraizer, Bird needed Magic, and Norah Jones needs Diana Krall –
a challenger to the title of leading jazz diva of the new millennium,
to keep the competition interesting and everyone on their toes.
Krall can’t match Jones’ CD sales – her releases only sell in the
millions, not the tens of millions. But when you get to that level,
whose counting? Krall long ago established herself as a mega-
draw in the jazz world, and her marriage to Elvis Costello means
that, if they file joint tax returns, this talented couple more than
keep up with Jones’s in the adjusted gross income department.

Krall is more deeply rooted in the jazz tradition than Jones, and
her repertoire is not much different than what Ella or Sarah were
singing a generation ago. This may sound like the safe choice, but
it isn’t. A thousand vocalists have ended up on the boulevard of
broken dreams by trying to resuscitate “S’Wonderful” or “Let’s Fall
in Love.” These songs have been so picked over that there is
hardly any meat left on their bones. But Krall avoids all the traps
here. She doesn’t lapse into imitation of her predecessors. She
doesn’t try to out-scat Ella or hit higher notes than Sarah. She
doesn’t get cutesy or treat the song with museum-like reverence.
Instead she does just what we want her to do – namely probe the
emotional insides of these melodies. She lives the song, and does
it with such honesty and immediacy, that we forget whether the
song was written in 1938 or 1968. It sounds like she composed it
on the piano this afternoon before showing up at the gig.

I would like to go further, and tell you how hard it is for a singer to
get the old tunes to sound so fresh, to revivify their inner lives for
the MySpace generation. But Krall makes it seem so simple. Yes,
there is technique here, although not the obvious kind you see
celebrated on American Idol. Take a metronome and measure the
tempo on Krall’s version of “I’m Through With Love” (from her All
for You CD) and you will find . . . ah, you will find that you can’t do
it because your metronome doesn’t have a setting for tempos that
slow. (My son has just pointed out to me that I need to double the
tempo on the metronome and divide by two to determine the
pulse. Where’s that calculator?) The jazzcats who play fast and
furious get all the attention, but achieving the “flow state” (to
borrow the terminology of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) at a pulse of 35
beats per minute is far more challenging. Krall is marvelous at
these tempos. The song breathes, takes on a supple
spaciousness as natural and uncluttered as a wide open horizon.
Searching for comparisons, I am tempted to mention Carmen
McRae or Betty Carter or Shirley Horn, who each demonstrated
supple rhythmic phrasing when singing ballads. Or Mark Murphy,
who has was always achieved Csikszentmihalyi’s flow state in his
performances, but has gotten better with the passing years – his
recent all-ballads CD Once to Every Heart is a virtual textbook in
loose, unfettered phrasing over slow tempos . But ultimately such
comparisons are unfair to Ms. Krall who has established a
distinctive voice of her own. She has already earned her own wing
in the pantheon of ballad singers.

When I listen to Jones and Krall, I wonder whether these new
stylists don’t portend what jazz will sound like after all the
modernist and post-modernist agendas fall out of fashion. We will
then be left with the music itself, stripped of ideologies, left with
songs staying to be true to their own emotional prerogatives. We
will no longer debate whether an artist is progressive or
reactionary – but instead immerse ourselves in the warmth of the
music’s inner glow. When that day comes, when we finally
recognize that the history of music as a series of revolutionary
developments is over, when song returns to the much richer
responsibility of meeting human needs, we will look at these two
artists as having been whispering this in our ears all along. At
least, that is my dream and, indeed, my expectation.

But the experimental, progressive wing in jazz singing still has
powerful advocates on its behalf. Patricia Barber may not have the
crossover appeal of Krall or Jones but her work is every bit as
creative, and often more surprising. She doesn’t play the glamour
game on her CD covers – her recent Mythologies release features
a delicate image in acrylic and ink by Rachel Salomon – and I
respect this choice, which seems to run counter to much that Blue
Note stands for these days. But this is only one of many areas in
which Barber rejects the conventional and expected. Her
recordings tend to announce their alternative perspectives in the
opening seconds. The first words on the first track of Mythologies
are: “Should I leave Erebus to his own device, what Chaos when
the curtain rises, and the houselights dim, with whitecake on my
face . . .” Maybe not quite “riverrun past Eve and Adam’s,” but
pretty out there for a jazz song. Her live recording in Paris kicks
off: “Did you ever think a piano could fall on your head.” (Let’s
hope the Parisians brought along their English phrase books that
night.) And even when she plays someone else’s hit song, Barber
twists new meanings from it. The Patricia Barber Companion starts
unexpectedly with a Sonny Bono song, and the vocalist intoning in
the most blasé, world-weary voice, “and the beat goes on.” I
laughed out loud at that, still not quite sure why it was so funny,
but it just was.

I am tempted to brand Barber as a performance artist who
happens to work within a jazz framework – sort of a Laurie
Anderson with syncopation. But that description, however apt in
some regards, gives insufficient credit to her jazz roots. She is an
outstanding jazz pianist, and could build a reputation on this alone.
On the live recording in Paris, she sizzles through a seven minute
instrumental, called “Crash,” which features some of the freshest
modal keyboard work I have heard in years. And she can sing a
ballad straight – hear her work on “Laura” -- and wring a tear from
the audience, without resorting to any theatrics or contrivances.
But these moments of reverence for the jazz tradition are always
short-lived at a Barber performance. She is too focused on the
here-and-now, and must have missed the nostalgia shots they
give the other jazz singers at their annual check-up.

Why aren’t more of our leading singers pushing the envelope like
Barber? Let’s be honest: jazz vocals never developed a vibrant
experimental tradition. Jazz singing never had its Ornette Coleman
or Cecil Taylor or Albert Ayler, never even had its Coltrane or
Dolphy. No avant garde singer has ever exerted strong influence
on the music. While the rest of the jazz world was wrestling with the
future, the singers were obsessed with the past. Even today, the
most pressing issue for an aspiring jazz singer is how to deal with
the tradition. Perhaps it would safer to say, how not to be
overwhelmed by the tradition. Instead of wholesale
experimentation, we find cautious delving into new ground, and
sometimes quaint game-playing. Tierney Sutton strings together
thirteen (the number is not a coincidence, I assure you) songs on
happiness into a CD, and presents “Get Happy” as if it were a
gloomy, funeral dirge. Kendra Shank takes Abbey Lincoln’s
“Throw It Away” and deconstructs it syllable by syllable,
enunciating the lyrics as though her native language is Latvian,
and she learned these new words by rote. Ann Dyer brings vocal
twists and turns drawn from Indian traditions into a modern pop
song, going from rock to raga in seconds flat. No, these are not
revolutions, dear comrade – there are few revolutions to be heard
in jazz singing – but rather a modest quest after the new and
different. Sometimes they work, sometimes they fall short, but the
quest itself is always noble.

Yet traditionalists still out-number the progressives in the world of
jazz vocals by a five-to-one margin. Jane Monheit may have grown
up in the 1980s and 1990s, but her stylistic development stopped
short somewhere around VE-Day. She has a bright, perky
delivery, a capacious range and good, clean intonation. There are
no dark, emotional recesses in her songs – everything happens
on the surface with no insides to probe. She is effervescent on up-
tempo songs, and sweet-as-pie on ballads. This singer still has
room to grow, but not in her technical command, which is already
impressive, but rather in probing the psychological depths of her
material. If she could add this to her already impressive arsenal of
skills – not forgetting her “stunning, raven-haired beauty” – she
might live up to the hype of her PR campaign.

We see this same respect for the past in the works of many
European vocalists, who show that they are careful students of
jazz history. Roberta Gambarini may have made her reputation in
Milan, Italy, but her sound is immersed in the musical vocabulary
of Ella Fitzgerald and Anita O’Day. Silje Nergaard hails from
Norway, but instead of building on the great jazz tradition of her
native land, she is busy channeling Blossom Dearie. Janita from
Finland (now a US resident) could be the second coming of Basia.
Each of these three vocalists – Gambarini, Nergaard, Janita – is
exceptionally talented and a delight to hear, but they are perhaps
too respectful of the traditions they have inherited. I pay especial
attention to singers from outside the United States, because I have
(often dashed) hopes that they will bring fresh perspectives and a
different musical vocabulary into their jazz music. Perhaps I hold
them up to too high a standard. Perhaps I am expecting too much.
But I can’t help it, and I am thus all the more disappointed when I
hear them maintaining strict allegiance to familiar role models from
the old U. S. of A. I feel like I have traveled to Paris or Rome only
to dine at an American chain restaurant.

Yet even in this environment, fresh voices can be heard . . . but
only if you are persistent enough to search them out. I first
encountered British vocalist Ian Shaw at Ronnie Scott’s in London
several years ago, where he was singing as a warm-up act. I was
dazzled by his vocal pyrotechnics, his stage presence and the
clever arrangements he brought to his material. I can hear the jazz
tradition in Shaw’s singing, but it does not obscure his
fundamental originality. Shaw has worked hard to build up a
reputation in the US, but he still remains under-appreciated. I am
not sure who handles his publicity, but they are diffident to a fault.
I once wrote his record label offering to send copies of his
recordings to other jazz writers with hand-written testimonials, all
free of charge, just for the sheer joy of spreading his music. (By
the way, this is the only time I have ever offered to do this in some
thirty years of writing about jazz – so if you’re thinking about
asking me to do this for your CD, think again.) I never even
received a response – so I can take no credit (or blame) for Mr.
Shaw’s level of notoriety in the music world. But even in the
Internet age, I find his recordings remarkably difficult to track
down, and I finally had to splurge thirty dollars to get his 2006
release Drawn to All Things: The Songs of Joni Mitchell shipped to
me from overseas. (Don’t believe anyone who tells you that critics
get all their CDs for free. My monthly Amazon bill could support a
small Third World nation.) And I recommend that you track down
his music, even if you have to pay the equivalent of six or seven
lattes for the privilege.

Among current jazz vocalists, Madeleine Peyroux may present the
most convoluted genealogy. Born in Georgia, raised in California
and New York, coming of age in Paris, Peyroux was already
exposed to the diverse musical crosscurrents of these setting
before her rise to fame in her early twenties. Some have
compared Peyroux to Billie Holiday, and I can hear a similarity in
phrasing and temperament. Yet there are many elements in her
singing that refuse to be reduced to a listing of influences. I am
especially struck by the extraordinary relaxation in her delivery. In
an age in which many jazz singers have caught the “Broadway
disease,” and try to belt it out to the back rows, offering a half-
dozen flourishes and curlicues where even one is enough,
Peyroux appreciates the power of under-statement. She is
impressive because she never tries to impress. Her phrases take
on a simple beauty, each small feint and pause given their proper
attention. She has a delicious thickness to her voice, almost a
whiskey slur, imparting depth to the lyrics of her songs. Even when
she reaches for a high note – a rarity in itself, given this singer’s
penchant for lingering in the middle register – she floats up to it
lazily, almost reluctantly. Above all, one gets a sense that Peyroux
is singing to herself, or to her own muse, and that we are fortunate
to be able to overhear the process.

Karrin Allyson, like Peyroux, refuses to get caught up in the
theatrics of jazz singing, and instead prefers to probe into the
inner life of her songs. Her repertoire is quirky in a beguiling way,
and moves from John Coltrane to Jacques Brel to Cat Stevens to
Caetano Veloso, with surprising ease. But Allyson is at her best
singing love songs. This is her sweet spot, her specialty, her home
turf. She brings across a fragility and vulnerability that almost runs
counter to the jazz aesthetic. Yes, the jazz world is familiar with
love, but it’s almost always a tough love, wearing a thick protective
layer of ribbed, rubber latex. Allyson cuts through to the soft
underbelly of this music with a deftness and honesty that is
impressive. I’m not sure what mental preparation she undergoes to
achieve this. Can it be taught like method acting? But anyone who
has heard her work reinterpreting John Coltrane’s Ballads
recording, or working her way through pop material on Wild for
You will appreciate the end result.

The state of jazz vocals today (part 2)

The type of emotional immediacy we encounter with Karrin Allyson
or Diana Krall or Norah Jones is much harder to find among the
younger male jazz singers. I don’t blame the guys so much as the
record execs behind them, who seem fixated on a certain formula
in selecting and presenting their talent. Here’s the recipe: Take
pretty boy looks and a tickling-the-ivories piano style, add material
written before 1950 with arrangements that sound like slightly
jazzier versions of Lawrence Welk charts, spice it with lots of
posturing, stylish clothes and a self-absorbed, narcissus-on-the-
bandstand attitude. Voila, you have a record contract!

How do we evaluate these retro-cool singers? Do Peter Cincotti,
Michael Bublé, Matt Dusk, Tony DeSare and the others of this
school have genuine talent? It’s hard to tell. It’s like trying to guess
the quality of ingredients that went into a frozen TV dinner. There
is so much packaging and processing here, that what’s really
inside is anyone’s guess. The handlers have prettified these
young gentlemen with such zeal, that we hardly get a sense of the
real person underneath. Just as Harry Connick was dubbed the
next Sinatra when he arrived on his scene – perhaps before he
had earned the title, but Connick eventually proved his talent and
staying power -- these newer aspirants aim to be the next Connick.
But a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy never looks good,
and these singers (and their handlers) should find something
original to call their own.

Even more to the point, the essence of jazz singing is an intimate
connection with the song, and the super-slickness of the
presentation here, the look-at-me-I-am-so-cool attitude, the retro
stylings all conspire against these artists. Jazz singing of this sort
is no longer about the music, but is merely a spur to the fantasy
life of the listener. This fantasy life, moreover, has almost nothing
to do with the music itself. The fans don’t want to enter into the
song -- frankly, they don’t give a hoot about “Blue Moon’ or the
“Summer Wind” - they want to live the private life of the glamorous
idol on stage. The audience is not thinking about a lost love, a
broken heart; instead they are imagining what it would be like to
shine under the footlights like the gods from Olympus with a
microphone in hand. And the pretty boy vocalist must live up to
this responsibility; he is forced to strut his hour on the stage like
an actor in a movie. Nothing wrong with all this, but it has little to
do with the jazz singing tradition we inherited from Louis, Billie,
Sarah and others.

The younger pups in the kennel would do well to study the
examples of the most successful of the older generation. Bobby
McFerrin must have infuriated his record label in the early days by
his refusal to jump on any bandwagons and his steadfast
avoidance of all the commercial trends of the day. He steered
clear of fusion music, even when its corrupting influence was
pervasive. He insisted on recording solo vocals – a recipe, it would
seem, for career disaster. Or, even worse, he would make whole
albums of songs without words, just McFerrin’s quirky sounds and
effects. (I would call this scat-singing, yet avoid the term simply
because McFerrin has a style that is so different from any other
scat singer on the planet. So he really defines his own category,
ne c’est pas?) Yet McFerrin became the biggest selling jazz singer
of his generation, and not only built a grand career, but became a
living legend in the process. He would have thrown that all away if
he had followed the fusion-pop sap-path that everyone prodded
him to follow. He would have been just one more packaged good
in the cold fusion section of the market, and his career would have
peaked faster than you could say “Eumir Deodato.” How many of
the younger singers are willing to take those same chances
today? How many even have a personal vision that is not tainted
by commercial interests? How many would force their own vision
against the wishes of the handlers? How many major labels would
back them in their decisions?
This is part two of "The State of Jazz Vocals Today" by Ted Gioia.
For part one, click here.

As long as we are talking about positive role models, let’s not
forget the oldest vocalist on our list -- Tony Bennett, who was
derided by jazz fans for most of his career, scorned because his
singing lacked the fashionable dose of irony that permeated the
pop culture atmosphere for a forty year period. Bennett wore his
heart on his sleeve, and always sang the old songs with total
commitment – so much so that it was easy to make fun of the old
codger. I remember Woody Allen building a very funny film,
Broadway Danny Rose, around a pathetic Italian-American
cabaret singer, seemingly based on Bennett, who was laughable
because he took his paltry songs so seriously. But in Bennett’s
case, his integrity and total honesty with his music eventually paid
off in a surprising way.

When Allen’s movie came out, Bennett was in the midst of a fifteen
year dry spell without a record on the charts. He was dropped by
Columbia, and for a time had no record contract, no manager, and
virtually no gigs outside of Las Vegas. But Bennett was
rediscovered by the MTV generation in the 1990s – who were
clearly fascinated by his “real-ness,” by his ability to sing a love
song without a net, without irony or sarcasm to deflect the
emotions. The very qualities that had made Bennett the odd-man-
out in his fifties, brought him back into the limelight in his seventies
and eighties. In my mind, he is still the touchstone of emotional
integrity in singing the jazz repertoire. When Bennett visited
American Idol last year, tears came to his eyes when he talked
about how to interpret the old standard “Smile.” Yes, it’s easy to
ridicule all this, but Bennett’s greatness is derived precisely by his
willingness to court ridicule for taking these sentimental tunes so
seriously. I ask you, how many of the younger generation feel the
inner life of American song tradition with such immediacy?

One could make similar claims for Mark Murphy, who originally
emerged on the scene as a hip stylist sliding over the surface of
songs, but has gotten deeper and deeper into the music with each
passing decade. I can't recall another jazz singer who has aged so
well. His recent CD Once to Every Heart is almost a textbook in
how to sing the standard repertoire. Listen to him tackle "Skylark"
or "I'm Through With Love," and you will find that almost every
phrase, every line has been artfully reconfigured to uncover the
beating heart within the song. It is hard to believe that such an
intense celebration of romantic love was was recorded by an artist
in his seventies.

Can any of the younger male jazz singers eventually live up to the
standards set by towering senior citizens such as Tony Bennett,
Mark Murphy or João Gilberto? Looking at the forty-and-under
crowd, I am perhaps most impressed with Kurt Elling, a charismatic
Chicago-based vocalist who recently joined the Concord label
after a half dozen stylish releases for Blue Note. Elling has crafted
an intense and deeply personal style, and is perhaps best
described as a beat generation bard for the new millennium.
Others of his generation may have a wider vocal range or surer
intonation, but Elling trumps them all through the sheer creativity
and forcefulness of his performances. While other male singers
seem interested in dusting off old Sinatra big band charts and
mimicking them note-for-note, Elling re-works and re-configures all
of the old songs into surprising new forms.

When I heard Elling’s twelve minute version of “My Foolish Heart”
on his Live in Chicago CD, I was so struck by its ingenuity that I
needed to go back and immediately listen to it again, then one
more time, trying to figure out the twists and turns in the
arrangement. Of course, Elling’s longtime musical director and
pianist Laurence Hobgood must be lauded as a major contributor
to these expansive re-workings. But Elling is the man on stage
bringing them to vibrant life. Perhaps the only weakness here is
the sheer power of Elling’s confident delivery, which seems to run
counter to the lyric. One can hardly believe that this singer suffers
from a foolish heart. But if Elling does not sing love songs in the
conventional way, he more than makes up for it by the
transcendence of his persona. He sounds like a man who has
found a higher love than the kind written about in pop songs,
some sort of zen insight into human relations, a Plato’s Symposium
squeezed into a jazz standard. This is no small achievement.

The only male singer of recent vintage who impresses me as much
is British-born Jamie Cullum, who started his career in virtual
obscurity – only 500 copies were made of his 1999 debut CD.
(Original copies have sold for a thousand dollars on eBay.) But
Cullum followed it up with his celebrated sophomore efforts,
Pointless Nostalgic, in 2002. This release showed Cullum at a
crossroads, apparently undecided between becoming another
retro jazz singer resuscitating a 1950s-era big band sound, or
tackling, fresher material. Half of the CD went each way, and
listeners were forced to decide which was the real Cullum: the one
who grooved on Radiohead songs and wrote clever contemporary
patter songs, or the one who sang “I Can’t Get Started” without
bothering to update the passé 1936 lyrics?

But the title of the CD must have given some hint at the direction
Cullum would take. His 2004 release Twentysomething and
Catching Tales from 2005 find Cullum giving up the nostalgic as a
pointless exercise. He has emerged as a man of his own times,
and delivered two of the most creative jazz CDs of the new
millennium. His songwriting is also top-notch, and judging by his
work on “Twentysomething” and “Next Year, Baby,” Cullum could
put down the microphone and make a living as a tunesmith, sort of
a modern-day Dave Frishberg. But we hope that day will never
come. Even when he takes on a moldy oldie, such as “Singin’ in
the Rain” or “Fascinating Rhythm,” Cullum brings it up-to-date in
fresh, inspiring ways. I especially like the unpredictability –
sometimes bordering on sheer craziness – of his on-stage
demeanor. Cullum dazzles the listeners with a singing style that is
wry, sly and shy by turns, adapting his delivery to the mood of the
moment. I expect great things from him; but – truth to tell – he has
already delivered some grand recordings.

As the examples of Cullum, Shaw, Gambarini and others make
clear, jazz singing is very much a global marketplace. Not too long
ago, Americans had a lock on all the top spots in the polls, but
now even the divas need to worry about offshore competition – no
different than factory workers and customer service reps. I must
(sheepishly) admit that I am delighted by this state of affairs. I
have always driven a Detroit car, and never drink beer during the
National Anthem, but when it comes to music, I relish the
competition from foreign lands.

Complacent fans who aren’t visiting the House on Un-American
Vocalizing are missing out on some of the finest jazz singers. And
don’t think you will pick up a tell-tale foreign accent from Belgian
singer David Linx or Dutch vocalists Wouter Hamel and Ilse
Huizinga, or Hungarian Nikoletta Szőke, or their peers. They have
listened to the same role models and mastered the same
techniques as their counterparts at Berklee or in Brooklyn. Then
again, the borders are collapsing these days, and all geographical
labels merely relative. The aforementioned Hamel may hail from
the Netherlands, but he has enjoyed his biggest success in the
Japanese market, where his song “Breezy” reached #36 on the
Tokio Hot 100 Chart. The talented Stacey Kent is sometimes
described as a British jazz singer, but she was born in South
Orange, New Jersey, and didn’t move to England until after
graduating from Sarah Lawrence. The singer Janita, on the other,
may take pride as the great Finnish success story, but she has
called New York her home base for more than a decade. Jann
Klose is building his career from the Bronx, but he hails from
Mannheim, Germany and grew up in Africa. These artists provide
a constant reminder that the jazz world is always a free trade zone,
and the barriers and tariffs exist only in our heads.

The biggest challenge to Yankee supremacy comes (no surprise)
from Brazil. Almost exactly fifty years ago, João Gilberto walked
into a recording studio in Rio and the airwaves have never been
the same since. His bossa nova sound was fresh and different,
and soon so widely imitated that it even became, in some
situations, a cliché. But Brazilian music has constantly reinvented
itself, every few years introducing some new genetic twist into the
pop-jazz DNA of our time. If you haven’t experienced Milton
Nascimento, Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Ivan Lins, Djavan, Gal
Costa, Chico Buarque, Jorge Ben . . . well, read no further. Go buy
their music and settle in for a session of sonic bliss. You can catch
up with more recent releases next year or next decade.

But if you already know basic Brazilian from A-to-(Tom)-Zé, do not
despair. Brazil produces new musical talent even faster than it
comes up with single-named soccer stars. Indeed, the talent
seems to run so deep, that we are hardly surprised when a
Brazilian musician such as Eliane Elias starts her career as a top-
tier jazz pianist, and then switches to singing, and proves to almost
equally good as a vocalist. If this were baseball, I would be
muttering about steroids right now. Rio is like the Yankees, always
holding on to more talent than they deserve. But how do you get a
chemical edge in music? It must be some secret ingredient that
they slip into caparinhas down there that gives the Brazil
contingent that extra edge.

The lineage in Rio is often familiar, even if the artists are relatively
new arrivals. Bebel Gilberto’s father João is, as mentioned, the
greatest Brazilian singer of recent memory (I bow in the direction
of Copacabana whenever his name is mentioned), and her mother
Miúcha is also a performer of note, as is her maternal uncle Chico
Buarque. I recall Stan Getz singing Bebel’s praises in private
conversations back in the early 1980s, when she was in her early
teens, but her singing remained a secret to most listeners until the
tremendous success of her 2000 release Tanto Tempo, which
sold more than one million copies. Bebel stays true to the family
tradition, with light, whispery vocals reminiscent of her father’s oh-
so-low-key work. But she subtly updates the bossa sound with
occasional (and understated) electronic effects. Although the
smooth, slick ambiance of her recordings is appealing, at times the
sound veers dangerously close to background music. Perhaps
she is happy with her niche in the market – music to chill out to, so
to speak – and certainly she must be pleased with the popularity
she has achieved during the last several years; but I would love to
hear Bebel in more challenging musical settings, perhaps fronting
a band of hot young jazz lions, or working with more adventurous
material. She is an appealing singer today, but she could be a
great one in the future.

CéU, the attractive singer-and-eye-candy who shares Gilberto’s
US distributor (Six Degrees), has achieved an even more
surprising commercial success. Not only has her eponymous CD
been vended aggressively at Starbucks, but her photo has been
placed on point-of-sale displays for the coffee chain’s Brazilian
Ipanema beans. Yes, other singers look like models, but CéU
actually gets called in for the photo shoot. Of course, this makes
me (the ever cynical reviewer) suspicious that the songs must be
robusta, when the looks are so Arabica. But I am happy to report
that CéU is a solid singer, and has collected some dynamite
grooves for her CD. Her rhythm section is worth the price of
admission alone.

Yet the more perspicuous fan will seek out some of the lesser
known Brazilian talents, whose CDs never wake up and smell the
coffee. Cássia Eller died in 2001, at the age of 39, so she just
barely made it into our list of singers of the new millennium. But
her Acústico CD ranks among the most potent Brazilian recordings
of the last decade, and provides ample evidence that this fiery
singer would have achieved crossover success in the US and
other countries had she lived longer. Maria Rita is another star of
the new generation, and boasts a lineage almost as dazzling as
Bebel Gilberto’s. Her mother was the late Elis Regina, a singer of
legendary status in Brazil although with less name recognition in
the US – but only because Regina died in 1982, before World
Music had become such a powerful marketing category in the US.
Maria Rita’s father is pianist arranger Cesar Camargo Mariano
and her brother is Pedro Mariano. This family tree alone is almost
a guarantee of something spectacular, and Rita lives up to the
expectations, proving once again that genetics trump music
lessons six ways to Domingo. She is a lively, enchanting singer,
and deserves her fair share of coffeehouse airplay.

But the most artistic jazz singer from Brazil is, hands down,
Luciana Souza. While other vocalists rehash the same jazz
standards, Souza has created an exciting repertoire of challenging
new pieces, many of them drawing their lyrics from the writings of
modern poets. Her 2000 release The Poems of Elizabeth Bishop
and Other Songs was a work of the highest order, and set Souza
apart from the crowd. But I am even more impressed with 2004
release Neruda, which presents Souza in invigorating settings of
the great Chilean poet. The opening track captures a brilliant
realization, in 7/4 time, of Neruda’s poem “Casa” (“House”) – a
performance that I have listened to again and again with great
delight – and the rest of the CD never disappoints. This is the type
of unexpected, exciting music that once came from the jazz
departments at the major labels, but today is the rare exception.
Souza is proof positive that there are still untapped sounds out
there for artists (and companies) willing to take some chances,
and not get caught up in the MTV mind-set of evaluating music
based on how it looks on a three minute video.

I have already gone through several dozen singers and eight
thousand words, and I fear my readers’ patience may be flagging.
But I can’t close my appraisal of the current state of jazz vocals,
without giving the nod to a few more, lesser known singers, who
might otherwise escape your notice. Sara Gazarek has a beautiful
voice and though I am not a fan of everything she records, she
has moments of greatness, especially when she sings ballads. On
her Return to You CD, she takes a hokey Billy Joel song, “And So
It Goes” and puts so much heart and soul into it that I am left
breathless. Much the same goes for Claire Martin, who leaves me
cold when she sings old standards, but grabs my attention when
she attempts more contemporary material. With the right producer
and supporting musicians, she could emerge as a major talent.
Julia Dollison, in contrast, works wonders with the older songs, and
makes me hope that readers will check out her self-produced CD
Observatory – this a real undiscovered gem that deserves greater
recognition. Melissa Stylianou also makes the standards sound
shiny and new, and surprised me with her extraordinary working of
“Them There Eyes” – a very silly song that Sylianou rebuilds and
reconfigures into something special. And when will record labels
give us more of Ann Dyer and Paula West and Eric Felten?. . .
And I haven’t even gotten to Jackie Ryan or Christine Capdeville
or Jim Ferguson. Nnenna Freelon or Gretchen Lieberum or Otis
Taylor. John Mayer or Kate McGary or Carmen Lundy. Anna Maria
Jopek or John Pizzarelli or Giacomo Gates – who all deserve a
hearing. But, honestly, I have to stop somewhere.

In short, jazz vocals are in good share in the new millennium. The
sheer amount of music out there can be daunting (to critics and
fans), and it doesn’t help that radio airplay is almost non-existent
for most of these artists. You won’t learn about most of them
unless someone tells you what’s cookin’. (Yep, you can thank me
in an email.) Moreover, the conflict between trends and traditions
makes for a confusing landscape. But confusion is good. It is a
sign of creative ferment. Some day, jazz singing might become like
opera – a dying tradition where celebration of the past overwhelm
newer efforts. When that happens, the confusion disappears and
so do the surprises. But for the time being, the patient is still
breathing, and even threatens to give us a good kick now and
again. Who would have thought we would survive the 90s – when
we lost Ella, Sarah, Carmen, Frank, and so many other greats?
No, my friends, the Golden Age is not yet over. You just need to
look beyond the glossy photos on the CD covers.
Ted Gioia